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Wednesday, November 19, 2003
Sooner Magic never failed Switzer's teams
By Jim Dent
Special to ESPN.com
Doug Flutie and Gerard Phelan created magic in the gathering darkness of the Orange Bowl in November of 1984, Flutie arcing the last-second prayer and Phelan slicing and then diving between a gang of Miami Hurricane defenders for the miracle touchdown grab.
The true magic of Paul "Bear" Bryant during his 38-year coaching career is that he never denied walking on water.
Perhaps the most magical character in the history of college football was Knute Rockne, who, according to lore and Hollywood dreamers, inspired the Notre Dame Fighting Irish to victory simply by shouting, "Fight! Fight! Fight!"
Down in Baton Rouge, on a foggy and ghostly Halloween night of 1959, Billy Cannon fielded an Ole Miss punt on one hop at the 11-yard line. LSU trailed three-zip in the fourth quarter. Nearly every Rebel coverage man laid a shoulder pad on Cannon, who tore through tacklers like a ribbed saw through steel. The last man to lay a hand on Cannon at the Ole Miss 45 was punter Jake Gibbs. He remembers, "I looked up and felt dirt spraying in my face from his footsteps -- heavy footsteps, pounding away from me, like a big mule running, tearing up the ground."
Not a day passes in Louisiana when they don't talk about the Halloween Night Run of Billy Cannon, and the Miracle on the Bayou. LSU 7, Ole Miss 3.
This weekend, fans of the Oklahoma Sooners pray that yet another miraculous potion reveals itself. It is called "Sooner Magic," and it first appeared in 1976 in the fourth quarter of the Nebraska-Oklahoma game. Ironically, those teams renew their rivalry once more on Saturday in Lincoln, and it could be argued that the stakes have never been higher -- the Sooners, riding a 20-game winning streak, are ranked first in the BCS standings, and Nebraska is No. 2.
"Sooner Magic" was born on a cold and windy afternoon in Lincoln in '76 when the fourth quarter found the Sooners trailing the Cornhuskers 17-7. With three minutes to play, and the lead down to four, hope for a comeback had all but vanished into the Nebraska clouds. Oklahoma was stuck at the 'Husker 16-yard line when Woodie Shepard completed a 50-yard halfback pass to freshman end Steve Rhodes, whose catch was nothing short of miraculous. Two plays later, Rhodes ran a curl pattern and then pitched to halfback Elvis Peacock on the old hook-and-lateral. Peacock was finally knocked out of bounds at the Nebraska three.
Peacock scored the winning touchdown on next play with 30 seconds remaining, vaulting the Sooners into a three-way tie for the conference championship.
The youthful Sooners were outmanned and outgunned that day. But "Sooner Magic" never failed them.
Three years later, Nebraska was unbeaten and the Sooners had lost but one game to Texas when the teams met in Norman. Oklahoma led 10-7 with eight minutes to go, and were lining up for a chip shot field goal when Switzer sent the offense back onto the field. Quarterback J.C. Watts scored a touchdown and the gamble paid off. Nebraska marched 86 yards in the final minutes for a touchdown, but would fall short 17-14.
A year later in 1980, Nebraska halfback Jarvis Redwine dashed 89 yards for an early touchdown, and the Cornhuskers led 10-0 after one quarter. With three minutes left in the game, Nebraska clung to a 17-14 lead, with the Sooners eighty yards from the goal.
When Buster Rhymes gained forty yards on the game's most critical play, a young Nebraska fan sprinted along the sideline, expressing despair. Sportswriter Jim Weeks would record the youngster's words the next day in the Norman Transcript; "Oh, no," the boy cried. "They're going to do it to us again."
They did. Rhymes dived for the winning touchdown with 56 seconds to play. Sooner Magic 21, Nebraska 17.
In the sixteen years that Barry Switzer coached the Sooners (1973-88), the Nebraska-Oklahoma game normally determined either the conference or the national championship or both. The teams played seventeen times during the Switzer era, the Sooners taking twelve. Oklahoma came from behind eight times in the fourth quarter to win.
When Sooners fans gather these days at Owen Field in Norman, Sooner Magic is rarely discussed. It seemed to fade away with the end of the Switzer era. Daily Oklahoman sports columnist and Sooners' historian Berry Tramel said, "I see no reason to believe it still exists. But it certainly did exist under Switzer."
J. Brent Clark, who has written two books on Oklahoma football, said, "Like the phrase 'Sooner Nation' it belongs to another time."
Perhaps the most dramatic Oklahoma comeback of all was staged in frigid Boulder, Colorado in November of 1956 when the Sooners trailed the Buffaloes 19-6 at halftime, and reports were being transmitted across America that the King was dead -- the winning streak at 35 games was upon its deathbed.
Wilkinson steamed into the tiny Quonset that served as a visiting locker room and said, "Gentlemen, the jerseys you are wearing are part of the great tradition of Oklahoma. They are symbolic of our grand history. You do not deserve to wear those jerseys. Take off those jerseys."
The players stood trembling in the semidarkness until Wilkinson returned twenty minutes later.
Standing with his nose a few inches from a naked light bulb, Wilkinson told the players, "Gentlemen, there is only one person who believes you are going to win this game. That person is me."
They practically knocked down a steel door as they poured out of the Quonset Hut, their shoulder pads flapping up the tunnel. Most had forgotten to put their jerseys back on.
Oklahoma rolled to a 27-19 victory that day, the pep talk from Wilkinson still ringing in their ears.
It has been said that Bob Stoops is the new Wilkinson. During his two-plus years as the Sooners head coach, OU has beaten eight Top Ten teams by an average margin of 18 points. And he is not afraid to discuss the possibility that Oklahoma winning 28 more without a loss, thus eclipsing the all-time, big-time college record.
"You never know," Stoops said. "Never and always are awfully powerful words."
Ironically, the team standing between Oklahoma and its day of destiny is Nebraska. Haven't we seen this somewhere?
Jim Dent is the author of "Junction Boys." His new book, "The Undefeated," chronicles the Oklahoma Sooners and college football's greatest winning streak.
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